2016 UC Berkeley Law Library
Holiday Reading List

pinecones and books

Let’s face it, nothing says the holidays like the UC Berkeley Law Library’s Holiday Reading List. In this “post-truth” (Oxford English Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year) world we live in, we can suggest nothing better than to gift these books to friends and family. And while you’re at it indulge yourself – you deserve a break. Thanks to our faculty, administrator, staff, student and kid contributors.

Enjoy! Wishing you and yours a joyous holiday season and all the best in 2017.

The UC Berkeley Law Library

Click on book cover to read review.

View description for 'All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation'
View description for 'American Heiress'
View description for 'The Anthologist'
View description for 'Brat Farrar'
View description for 'Britt-Marie Was Here'
View description for 'Call of the Wild'
View description for 'Dessert First'
View description for 'The Dispossessed'
View description for 'Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library'
View description for 'An Expert in Murder'
View description for 'Flavor Flours'
View description for 'Free to be Ruth Bader Ginsburg'
View description for 'A Gentleman in Moscow'
View description for 'Ghosts'
View description for 'The Hidden Life of Trees'
View description for 'Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture Crisis'
View description for 'His Bloody Project'
View description for 'Irwin Klein and the New Settlers: Photographs of Counterculture in New Mexico'
View description for 'Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption'
View description for 'The Last Alchemist'
View description for 'A Man Called Ove'
View description for 'A Manual for Cleaning Women'
View description for 'Matilda'
View description for 'Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children'
View description for 'The Murder of Mary Russell'
View description for 'My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry'
View description for 'Parable of the Sower'
View description for 'Station Eleven'
View description for 'Straight Man'
View description for 'The Underground Railroad'
View description for 'The Witches: Salem, 1692'

All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister

Sarah Elizabeth Pace, 3L

No, this is not a book about the hit Beyonce song. But it will have you just as hooked. Through a case-study that reads like a novel, Rebecca Traister unearths the truth about a body of Americans who have been the brunt of the most jokes, and the protagonists of the most rom-coms: single women. I firmly believe that anyone can relate to this book - not just single women - and everyone should read it. It helped me better understand just how afraid society is of single, unmarried, divorced, and widowed women. Through well-written stories of individual women, explication of data and statistics, and a historical analysis, Traister calls out the structural blockades across multiple realms (bureaucratic, political, social, professional) that only single women are forced to traverse. But it is not all frustration. Traister also highlights how over time unpaired females have been breaking down these barriers. It is a sobering but hopeful read that will make you laugh, cry, and leave you wanting to discuss.

American Heiress By Jeffrey Toobin

Ellen Gilmore, Reference Librarian

Patty Hearst was kidnapped on February 4th, 1974 from her apartment on Benvenue Avenue, just a few blocks from Boalt. This local angle adds an extra layer of interest to the crime story that has fascinated Americans for over forty years. Author and lawyer Jeffrey Toobin did extensive research for his book, uncovering new documents and conducting over 100 interviews (although Hearst herself refused to talk with him) in order to revisit, from today’s vantage point, the story of the kidnapping, the Symbionese Liberation Army and Hearst’s trial. He sets the story within the larger context of northern California in the 1970s, in the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate. “In a kind of cosmic refutation of the Summer of Love”, he writes, “San Francisco became synonymous with crime”. The city “seemed to crackle with madness”. The Zodiac and Zebra killings, the assassination attempts on President Ford, the gas shortages, and numerous bombings all contributed to an atmosphere of violence and dashed hopes. The kidnapping of Patty Hearst, Toobin tells us, “is very much a story of America in the 1970s”.

Toobin’s deep dive into this story gets a bit too granular at times. I could have done without the lists of every kind of weapon stockpiled by the S.L.A. But this is a minor complaint, as for the most part the book reads like a novel that you don’t want to put down. His descriptions of the settings in which the kidnapping and subsequent crimes took place are sharp reminders of how much times have changed, and of how differently the events might have played out in today’s world. In 1974 there were no cell phones, no internet, and no security cameras watching every corner of our lives. The television coverage of the shoot-out with the S.L.A. in Los Angeles was the first time a breaking news event was broadcast live around the country.

Toobin’s experience as a both a federal law clerk and an assistant U.S. attorney makes for compelling reading when he is describing Hearst’s federal court trial and her subsequent treatment. Was Hearst was responsible for her crimes or was she a brainwashed victim who did what she needed to survive? Toobin seems to conclude that the truth is somewhere in between. He does, however, come down strongly on the many advantages of being a Hearst and the privileges that go along with the name. “Rarely have the benefits of wealth, power, and renown been as clear as they were in the aftermath of Patricia’s conviction”, he states. While Hearst participated in numerous serious crimes, Toobin points out that following her arrest she quickly understood that being rich was better than being poor and freedom was better than imprisonment, and he concludes that Hearst was unlikely to commit such crimes again. If the United States routinely forgave the acts of such people, there would be little reason to question the special considerations that Hearst received. But as Toobin explains, “the United States is not such a country; the prisons teem with convicts who were also led astray who committed lesser crimes than Patricia. These unfortunate souls have no chance at even a single act of clemency, much less an unprecedented two”. In light of having read Just Mercy, Toobin’s observations ring very true.

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

Claudia Polsky, Director, Environmental Law Clinic

If you are a person whose mouth forms itself into a “Yes” when you are trying to say “No,” so that instead of a journal article you find yourself writing a holiday book review, because there is a difference between what counts and what matters, and what matters when three branches of government have just been given an enema is to seek refuge in a universe of beauty and warmth and humor rather than to wallow in the slough of despond, then you are a person who might really love a free-associative novel by Nicholson Baker; and no, it is not Vox, which is the one you have heard of because it’s about kinky phone sex and Bill and Monica read it to each other late at night such that it came up in Ken Starr’s ludicrous fishing expedition, because authors rarely get famous for their best books; and neither is it Room Temperature, which is indeed a truly lovely work, also by Mr. Baker, about the ceaseless meanderings and divagations of a dad’s mind when alone in the middle of the night with a newborn trying to bring a baby bottle to the safe and proper Fahrenheit point for feeding; but rather, it is The Anthologist (c. 2009), in which professor-protagonist Paul Chowder endeavors to assemble an anthology of poetry but finds himself hopelessly and perpetually distracted, because he cannot keep his undisciplined mind from instead discussing his love of poetry, his love of women, and his love of women who love poetry, in a super-abundance of Joycean-yet-wholly-accessible dependent clauses and parentheticals, and he is also supremely likeable and howlingly funny, and if I were to make a career of plagiarism I would start right here.

Call of the Wild by Jack London, Ages 12-15

Isaac Klein, Grade 7, Korematsu Junior High

In the book, Call of the Wild, the main character, Buck, who is a dog, changes owners many times. First, he lives in Santa Clara, California. When he lives there he is Judge Miller’s dog. Then the judge’s gardener who doesn’t make that much money kidnapped Buck and sold him to some sled dog owners in the Yukon. Then François and Perrault bought him for the sled team, which is run by the Canadian government mail system. Then when he becomes older they sell him to Hal, Charles, and Mercedes. They are “pigs” who use old sled dogs to be their slaves and they underfeed them. While Hal is whipping Buck, a nice man named John Thorton takes him away and feeds him.

I would recommend this book to ages 12-15 because it has a lot of adventure and excitement. I would give this book a 4 star rating.

The Last Alchemist in Paris & Other Curious Tales From Chemistry by Lars Ohrstrom

Joe Cera, Legal Research Librarian for Information Technology & Scholarly Communications

I use this as bedtime reading to my 6 month old son. His review is 'ge66666666666666666gjlxc' - I'm not sure where on the scale from very positive to scathing that falls. I will ask again in a few years. This book is broken up into discussions about a number of important chemical elements as they relate to human invention and discovery. Each chapter covers a different chemical element and provides a narrative to discuss how that element was important to us in some way. The style is entertaining and informative and requires no real knowledge of chemistry. It's a great book to give you just enough information to be interesting when meeting people. For example, we are all aware (should be aware) of the Hindenburg airship and the fiery crash - that information doesn't make you interesting. However, knowing that the crash was not the only fiery hydrogen-filled blimp crash and that few people died in comparison to another contemporary blimp crash makes you interesting. You will also be comforted to read that humans have always been greedy jerks so nothing has changed there. Do you know how the British came to own Manhattan instead of the Dutch? I won't spoil it for you but it is spice-related. Go find a copy and learn something that isn't law-related. Few people are actually interested in your legal hypotheticals.

The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff

Monique Macauley, Acquisitions/Serials

From the author who penned Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff turns her focus on an event in American history that looms over us even in the present: The Salem Witch Trials.

I’m going to be honest and warn potential readers that this book is a slog. You are going to get to know more about Puritan history, culture, religion, familial relationships, origins in America, politics, treaties with the Native Americans, land ownership, the charter with England, etc., etc., etc., than you ever thought you needed to know. But you do need to know it all to understand the complex nature of the “affliction” and the resulting trials. And even then, so many questions get asked and so many remain unanswered, we will never really understand what happened and why. The behaviors of all the people involved are maddening and heartbreaking but they were unenlightened people as this event takes place literally before the Age of Enlightenment. Superstition, religious fervor, gossip, and hearsay ruled the day in colonial Massachusetts and it’s very difficult at times to not judge them harshly. However, these are our predecessors, the people who laid the foundations of the country that we live in today and we still feel the social and political reverberations from these events 324 years later.

I definitely suggest this book if you have the time to dedicate to reading and processing it. It’s located in the library’s bestseller non-fiction section. Check it out!

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Edna Lewis, Reference Librarian

The conceit of this novel is that the underground railroad was not a metaphor for the network of abolitionists helping slaves escape the pre-Civil War South, but in fact an actual railroad (its origins and operations mysterious) which carries runaway slaves on a circuitous underground track, hopefully to freedom. The protagonist, Cora, a young black woman, escapes with another slave from a Georgia plantation where the slaves have been brutalized and dehumanized at every turn. If nothing else, this book will disabuse you of any Gone With the Wind romanticized ideas of antebellum slave life - slavery is always wrong. Cora is obsessively pursued by the slave hunter Ridgeway (think Les Miserables’ Javert) because Cora’s mother, who also escaped when Cora was a child, was the one slave he never found. Cora’s journey is Odyssean, popping up from the underground tunnel at various “stations”, never knowing what awaits aboveground and where Ridgeway may be. At one point she seems to have found a new world in South Carolina with a paying job and safe dormitory living until she finds black women are being sterilized and “inferior” blacks are being euthanized. Then she is hidden for months by a sympathetic abolitionist in his North Carolina attic where she watches runaway slaves be hanged in a community ritual every Friday.

The novel has an almost surreal feel as it compresses into one time period horrific events happening to blacks throughout our country’s toxic history of slavery. Whitehead uses an interesting literary device in that after having a character’s story play out he will then give you a biography of that person up to their appearance in the novel which makes you go back and completely rethink that person’s actions. Most importantly, Whitehead shows how rhetoric ramps up prejudice and fear and violence. Whitehead reminds us again and again of how quickly humans can slip into brutality and inhumanity.

This book just won the National Book Award and deservedly so.

Straight Man by Richard Russo

Robert C. Berring, Jr., Walter Perry Johnson Professor of Law

Recent months have had a had a melancholy feel. To dispel the gloom I bought Richard Russo’s newest book, Everybody’s Fool, but it was mired in gloom. It drove me to go back to Russo’s Straight Man, one of my favorite novels and reread it. It tells the story of Professor Henry Deveraux, reluctant chair of the English Department at a Pennsylvania state college. The depiction of academic politics and human frailty is lovely. Henry, called Hank, can be exasperating, but his intentions are good and everything rolls out neatly. Anyone who has had to sit through a boring meeting about a boring subject should enjoy this one. Think of it as an oldie but goodie.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Amy Utstein, Director of Administration

Station Eleven is a haunting and elegant novel and it is unsurprising that it was a finalist for both the National Book Award as well as the PEN/Faulkner Award. While it is, for all intents and purposes, a post-apocalyptic novel, it is so much more than a standard genre novel. It’s more of a meditation on how the end of the world affects our basic humanity. And, it's a truly compelling and entertaining read. The story follows a Traveling Symphony whose motto is “survival is insufficient”. This quote from Star Trek perfectly describes the philosophy of this jewel of a book.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Stephanie Campos-Bui, Clinical Teaching Fellow

I begrudgingly took a Science Fiction literature course during my last year of undergrad at Cal. I expected story after story about robots, space, aliens and more robots. But to my surprise, our professor assigned Parable of the Sower which forever transformed my perception of the genre.

The book is set during the 2020s in California--civilization has collapsed, resources are scarce, racial and ethnic tensions are high, and poverty is the norm. The book is told through the eyes of a young Black girl, Lauren, who suffers from a genetic condition that allows her to feel others’ pain and sensations. Early on, Lauren is forced abruptly from her home and split apart from her family. The rest of the book follows Lauren as she tries to move forward and make sense of what humanity has done in the name of survival. She ultimately takes her observations and attempts to build a new society centered around Earthseed, a religion that values change and diversity.

Despite being a story about a dystopian future filled with anarchic violence, the book is sometimes too realistic and at the same time, not entirely cynical. And I think all the more appropriate for a frightening but good read this break as we head into the new year with a new presidential administration.

The Murder of Mary Russell (Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes #14) by Laurie R. King

Monique Macauley, Acquisitions/Serials

Mary Russell opens her door to an unknown man whom believes that the housekeeper is his mother. Mrs. Hudson, dedicated housekeeper to Sherlock Holmes, arrives home to find a trail of blood and Holmes’ wife Mary Russell missing. And so begins another installment in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series.

I will admit that I have not read any of the other books in this series and so I wondered if I would be able to enjoy The Murder of Mary Russell, fearing it would contain many references to previous books. I was pleasantly surprised that this novel could stand alone. This is primarily due to the fact that the narrative involves the backstory of Mrs. Hudson rather than focus on Mary and Sherlock Holmes.

The book did what it was supposed to do. It was an enjoyable little read that kept my interest. If you are looking for something simple, entertaining, and a little bit fluffy this is a good choice. The book is located in the fiction bestseller section of the library. Check it out!

Matilda by Roald Dahl, Ages 8-12

Leah Klein, Grade 4, Fairmont Elementary School

Matilda is an extremely intelligent girl. She lives with her mother, father, and brother, Mike. Her family does not care about her and her parents don’t read nor are they smart and they really like to watch TV. The dad sells used cars and is a crook! One day the dad sells a car to Miss Trunchbull who is a horrible woman. She is also a principal at Crunchem Hall. Matilda’s father decides to send her there. Miss Trunchbull throws kids out the window, locks them in the chokey, and bullies and calls them names. Luckily Matilda’s teacher, Miss Honey, is sweet and caring, and she thinks that it is wonderful that Matilda is so smart. However, Miss Honey is afraid, who bullies her, and she is desperately poor. One day at school Matilda gets angry at Miss Trunchbull and discovers he has a unique power to move things without touching them. She uses the power to help Miss Honey and fix the school.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

Ramona Martinez, Circulation

I had heard good things about this before I knew it had been selected as the featured book for the UC Berkeley On the Same Page program. Then I got more interested in digging into the subject after helping to gather the supplemental reading material suggested by the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice. I was thrilled to receive one of the copies that were given out to Boalt students and staff. The story drew me in instantly and I was hooked. I felt the stress and pressure that the author suffered while setting up his practice representing wrongfully convicted death row inmates. I gained insight into the myriad injustices suffered by vulnerable communities: minority, poor, mentally ill, women … the list goes on. The author describes widespread perversion of the justice system by biased officials at all levels. The personal stories of some of the author’s clients are heartbreaking and disturbing. I was pulling for every one of them to get the justice they deserved. I read this book back in September but the stories and the themes have been brought back into focus for me as I struggle to come to terms with the result of this year’s presidential election. We need more social justice warriors like Bryan Stevenson and his colleagues to help steer our country toward a future of justice and equality for ALL its citizens. I’ll be raising my own voice and directing my own charitable giving accordingly.

Irwin Klein & the New Settlers: Photographs of Counterculture in New Mexico edited by Benjamin Klein

Dean Rowan, Director Reference and Research Services

At once beautiful and serious, this large format display of 80 black-and-white photographs taken by editor Ben Klein’s (BK) uncle during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s combines history, anthropology, and biographical criticism in a series of illuminating contributions by BK and colleagues. The beauty resides in the photographs themselves, but also in the younger Klein’s navigation of his professional and personal investment in his subject. A scholar of Early Modern English history (and spouse of Berkeley Law librarian Keri Klein), BK pays loving tribute to his uncle while orchestrating scholarly accounts of the pathways the hippie new settlers took in search of their communal, perhaps utopian, ideals in rural outposts of the New Mexican desert.

If you recall the scene of the hippie commune in 1969’s iconic Easy Rider you know the community (adjusting for Hollywood’s skew) in which, as the book notes, the photographer Klein participated even as he assumed the role of observer and documenter. He chose to depict the new settlers’ transit “from innocence to experience,” registering perennial themes of American character and spirit such as self-reliance, anti-authoritarianism, fear of the unorthodox, and connection to the land. The photographs capture spontaneous moments of the new settlers as they conduct their daily lives, arduously work, and celebrate their pursuits of happiness and freedom. Even where people are not the photographer’s focus, most of the photos include the new settlers themselves, young and old, including Alan Klein, Irwin’s brother and BK’s father. But one of the small number of photographs that do not feature a human figure appears a little over midway through the series. No. 51, “Grave and cabin at Mora,” features a foreshortened makeshift grave of stones and a wooden cross at front and center, the rustic cabin behind it, separated from the foreground by a copse. All photography portends death, but this one is a memento mori, bringing to mind the fragile vitality of the unknown interred, the communes, the New Mexico hippies and their ideals, America and its ideals… Irwin Klein & the New Settlers beautifully captures a history remote enough by now to feel, even to those of us who lived through it, like history. Like the best histories and works of documentary visual art, Klein’s book revives history and lets us view it with fresh eyes and understanding.

His Bloody Project by Graeme MaCrae Burnet

Michael Levy, Associate Director, Law Library; Lecturer in Residence

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Burnet's inventive novel is in an intriguing mash up of mystery and historical fiction. Set in the 1860s in a rural Scottish community, the teenage protagonist, Roderick Macrae, is on trial for the brutal triple murder of a neighboring family. The author presents the novel as a collection of documents from a variety of perspectives including Roderick's own memoirs written while awaiting trial, contemporary newspaper articles, trial transcripts and reports from psychologists as to the sanity of the defendant. This gives the book a distinct Rashomon effect. Particularly enjoyable is the use of distinct Scottish vocabulary from the era. Soon you will be using flaughter, quaich, bannock and strupach in your everyday life.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture Crisis by J.D. Vance

Monique Macauley, Acquisitions/Serials

Mostly memoir and part cultural analysis, J. D. Vance describes his childhood growing up in Middletown, Ohio (where he lived) and his connection to family and place in the small Appalachian town of Jackson, Kentucky (his home). Vance is from a family of the White Working Class (WWC) we’ve heard so much about since the most recent election and he helps to shine a light on a portion of our populous who have lost the American Dream. He does so without being an apologist for the failings of his family and the community at large.

Vance starts by telling about his “hillbilly” grandparents who leave Kentucky with the hope of escaping the poverty of their hometown. They arrive in postwar Ohio and manage to build a middle-class existence only to struggle with the new expectations of what that life offered. His mother floats from man to man leaving Vance and his sister Lindsay wondering who they are going to be living with next. Contributing to this instability is his mother’s drug addiction. Luckily for Vance and his sister, they have Mawmaw and Pawpaw, their grandparents, who try to provide some semblance of stability. It is with their help and the intervention of others in Vance’s life that he is able to graduate high school, join the Marines, and attend and graduate from Ohio State and Yale Law School.

So I have had many people approach me while I’ve been reading this book. I tell them it is interesting and an eye opener, and it is in a way, but I suspect that many feel that this book can shine some insight on what happened in the last election and provide a path to understanding and reconciliation. If this is your motivation you will be disappointed. This is a feel good story about a man who rose above his circumstances and that’s about it. That being said it’s a good memoir with a standout character in Mawmaw who has to be the toughest woman, or possibly person, I’ve ever heard about. So come for the story and take what you can from the social commentary. This book is located in the nonfiction section of the best sellers in the library. Check it out!

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben

Chris Tarr, Head of Cataloging

Given recent events, there is comfort in reading about processes that can take 500 years to come to fruition, which is how long it will take a plantation of spruce in Central Europe to fully revert to what it wants to be, a forest of beech trees. Don’t worry, though, because it will happen, and all you have to do is leave it completely alone. (This can be hard for people.)

Peter Wohlleben’s wonderful book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World, explains a lot about trees. They communicate and even feed each other through a network of helpful fungi (who take a share, though – 1/3 of the food trees make is taken by these helpful fungi). They coordinate what years to produce seed, and what years not to – as a way to keep the animals who eat their seeds in check, allowing for some seedlings to survive. Older trees retard the growth of younger trees to make their wood denser, with less aid, which makes the trees stronger. The forest, it turns out, is a community, and it makes you feel for trees plucked from that community and grown as orphans along the street, or as exotic specimens in foreign lands, or in plantations for lumber at altitudes where they do not belong. It’s a fascinating book (and, if you like Werner Herzog, tell me the author’s voice doesn’t remind you a bit of him. I just watched Into the Inferno and the similarity was strong.)

It’s a lovely little book. His area of specialty is Central Europe, so he speaks less about North American forests, but I learned a lot.

Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier

Natalia Levy, 5th Grade, Peralta Elementary School, Oakland

This book is about a girl named Cat who has a sister named Maya. They move to a new town called Bahia de la Luna, which is in California. Her parents say they're moving because their dad got a new job which is true, but the big reason is that Maya is very unhealthy. She has a problem with digesting her food. It's called Cystic Fibrosis. When they go explore the neighborhood Cat and Maya meet a boy named Carlos in the arcade. He tells them to go on the ghost tour. He says, “The ghosts in this town are people's family members that died,” and on the ghost tour is when things got bad!

I like this book because it relates to the book Wonder. They both have a sibling that is different than other people. For example, Maya has something that affects how she digests her food so she has to wear a special vest. And Auggie, Via’s brother, has a different face than other people. I recommend Ghosts to people that like happy, sad and not really but a little scary books.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Edna Lewis, Reference Librarian

I loved Amor Towles first book, Rules of Civility, particularly for his ability to evoke a time and place, in that instance pre-war Manhattan. Here Towles has taken on post-revolutionary Russia and the life of Count Alexander Rostov who lives under house arrest in Russia’s grandest hotel, The Metropol, for having written an incendiary Bolshevik poem. The Metropol is a crossroads for all of Russia - Bolsheviks, movie stars, spies, writers - and Rostov becomes caught up in all the intrigue through Nina the young daugher of a party bigwig who lives in the hotel and literally has the keys to the castle. Rostov’s philosophical adaptation to his changed circumstances captivates as he goes from being the hotel restaurant’s premier guest to its head waiter.

Despite the Metropol’s insistence on maintaining its former standards and glamour it is not immune to the changes in Russia as the Bolsheviks become the Communists and hardship and persecution increase. Over 30 years Rostov sees friends disappear east never to return, and Stalin’s brutal rise plays out before Rostov’s eyes (and ears) in party banquets he oversees at the hotel. When the adult Nina goes east to try to save her imprisoned husband, Rostov first gives shelter to, and then, when it is clear Nina will never return, raises Nina’s daughter in his attic rooms. Rostov is a charming and wily character and all the hotel’s employees and its guests are richly developed through wonderfully written dialogue and Towles’ expertise in capturing period details. Just curl up and enjoy this one.

Free to Be Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Story of Women and Law by Teri Kanefield

Kathleen Marie Vanden Heuvel, Adjunct Professor of Law; Associate Dean, Capital Projects; Director, Law Library

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Teri Kanefield is a Boalt (’03) grad who has made an amazing and interesting career for herself as a writer of novels, short stories, essays, stories for children, nonfiction for both children and adults, and (last, but not least) legal briefs. She was once a student in my Advanced Legal Research, where she wrote a superb legal research guide on dependency hearings on Indian Reservations. Reading her guide was an eye-opening experience for me. I was especially impressed with the way she interwove the real emotional realities of these proceedings with the laws, procedures, economic realities and rampant discrimination that her clients faced. Her webpage states that her “law practice is limited to representing indigents on appeal from adverse rulings. She believes that when the rights of society's most vulnerable members are denied, everybody's rights are imperiled. She also believes that the purpose of literature is to expand our sympathies.” Her list of novels, nonfiction, fiction and nonfiction for Young Readers is long.I notice that her next book is a biography Alexander Hamilton. Smart woman.

I was privileged to read an advance copy of Free to this past spring. As soon as I opened the book I was drawn into the fascinating story of RBG’s early life. (She was born Joan Ruth Bader in 1933 to Nathan Bader, a jewish immigrant, and Celia Amster, whose parents immigrated to the US just four months before Celia’s birth in 1902. She grew up in the Flatbush district of Brooklyn and was an excellent student, a cheerleader, baton twirler, and cello player, who loved Nancy Drew.) While RBG’s own story is front and center in this this well-researched and wonderfully engaging biography, Teri Kanefield also tells a broader story about feminism and the ongoing struggles to contend with the powerful forces of misogyny and sex discrimination in America.

Kanefield masterfully interweaves facts, anecdotes and incidents from RBG’s impressive life story with many of her most notable court cases and makes ingenious use of RBG's arguments in her sex discrimination cases to convey both her tremendous skill and influence as a lawyer and to discuss the history and development of sex discrimination law. Although Kanefield is clear that this book is not written for lawyers, I personally find her discussion of the cases RBG is involved in to be illuminating and insightful. As we journey through RBG’s entire life we come to understand the origins of her own feminism and to see her not as a “female supreme court justice,” but as a fascinating and brilliant individual who is a powerful force in our nation. At the same time, Kanefield explores what I can only view as the darker side of women’s empowerment, in which conservative forces mobilize to destroy the ERA and states mobilize to deeply constrain women’s reproductive rights. By interweaving the story of RBG’s personal life and career with the legal and social history of sex discrimination law and policy Kanefield reveals not only RBG’s own ideas about feminism, sex discrimination and gender roles, but also gives voice to those of her colleagues and contemporaries, ranging from Phyllis Schlafly, to Antonin Scalia, to the litigants in RBG’s cases and beyond.

While the tendency in America is to label and categorize everything and everyone as either liberal or conservative, Kanefield reveals a far richer and much more complex landscape. Her story of the many origins and faces of feminism and RBG’s strategic development of sex discrimination laws, makes it clear how and why RBG has been such a powerful force. But it also demonstrates the extreme constraints that RBG operates under and quietly reveals how many of these constraints have been self-generated by her own experiences, vantage points and views of feminism and affirmative action. It is not women’s history, separate from “real” history. It is the history of all of us.

I admit that I found the book bone chilling when reading it in the context of the presidential campaign. Especially after Kanefield’s recounting of Phyllis Schlafly’s and the republican’s aggressive war on the ERA, I came away from reading the book convinced that Donald Trump was going to win the election, a position that at the time many of my colleagues and friends thought was a sign that my cognitive faculties were slipping. But for me, a baby boomer, Kanefield’s book dredged up crucial historical facts and attitudes that I had lived through and recognized, but had forgotten or buried deeply. Like the fact that it was common and legal to fire women when they became pregnant well into the 1970s; or that the ERA had 35 of the 38 states it needed for ratification when Schlafly mobilized opposition. A pattern that has become familiar emerges in Free to Be: educated, middle class “northern” women tended to support the ERA; women from working class families (whether they worked outside the home or not) were distrustful that it would give them more than they would lose under the status quo, in which women’s power is subordinate to men’s.

Free to Be guides, but does not manipulate, the reader through the complicated but fascinating court cases and political maneuvers that are the hallmark of RBG's career as a lawyer and jurist. By the end I felt I knew RBG as an individual, better grasped the complex and diverse nature of feminism, and learned a great deal I had either forgotten or had not known about the history sex discrimination law. I enjoyed every minute of the experience and recommend this book, especially in light of the recent election. It gives us a sense of how and why we are where we are and may help us to think more clearly and strategically about the future.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabstein, Ages 8-12

Jacob Klein, Grade 7, Korematsu Middle School

The book, Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, by Chris Grabstein, is about a boy named Kyle Keeley, the protagonist, who loves to play Luigi Lemoncello’s super creative board and video games. On the ride to school, Akimi Hughes, Kyle’s best friend, reminds Kyle that the extra credit writing assignment on the new Alexandriaville Public Library, which is super high tech and has holographic images and a Wonder Dome, with tons of books, which is really cool. The twelve winners will spend the whole night at the new library, made by Mr. Lemoncello, where there will be games and prizes. Along with Akimi and ten others, Kyle surprisingly was one of the winners. First, they get a tour, but what they don’t realize is that they will be trapped in the library the whole night until someone finds an alternate exit, other than the doors and the fire exits. The winner gets money and will star in Mr. Lemoncello’s holiday commercials. Kyle teams up with Akimi and two others. Charles Chiltington, the antagonist, who brown noses adults but is rude when they are not around, gets his “teammates” kicked out of the library so he could have a better chance of winning.

I recommend this book for ages eight to twelve for its exciting action. I like this book because the plot brings you in. I also learned about books that I have not read before.

Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman

Marci Hoffman, Associate Director & International and Foreign Law Collections

I have read all three of Backman's books and thoroughly enjoyed them all. All three are reviewed in this list. These books are translated from Swedish and are simply delightful. The characters are quirky, funny, full of flaws, anxious, have annoying characteristic, and so much more – just like all of us. The books were published in the order A Man Called Ove, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry and Britt-Marie Was Here, but I read them out of order and I think it’s just fine. If I try to describe the books in any more detail, I think I’ll give too much away. I found myself laughing out loud and tearing up a bit with all of these books. Pick up one of these books, or all three, and enjoy.

Britt-Marie Was Here is about a very peculiar woman who walks out of her 40-year marriage after learning about her husband’s affair. Through the unemployment office, she is sent to be the caretaker of a run-down recreation center in a small (run-down) town called Borg. Not a sports fan, she then ends up coaching a children’s football (soccer) team. She’s a neat freak and very set in her ways which leads to some rather hilarious interactions with the locals of the town. This experience impacts Britt-Marie in profound ways and she, in turn, has a big impact on the residents of this small town.

Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey (on Audiobook)

Marlene Harmon, Reference Librarian

Josephine Tey was the pseudonym under which Scottish writer Elizabeth MacKintosh (1896 – 1952) wrote a handful of well-regarded mystery novels among them Brat Farrar and her classic, The Daughter of Time. I read them years ago and recently rediscovered several of them as audiobooks. Tey also wrote plays under the pseudonym Gordon Daviot, and it as a playwright that Nicola Upson fictionalizes her in the first of her series of “Josephine Tey Mysteries”, also reviewed herein as An Expert in Murder.

British actress Carole Boyd's perfect narration brings this old favorite, a “doubly identity”, mystery to life. Twenty-one-year old Brat Farrar has led an orphan's hard scrabble life, the one constant joy of it being horses. He hones his skills working horses in Australia, the United States and finally England. Here he turns out to be the mirror image of one Simon Ashby, heir to a large horse stable, country estate and fortune. Also the identical twin of Patrick Ashby, disappeared and presumed drowned eight years earlier. Broke, alone and in need or work, Brat is unable to resist the pull of a beautiful estate and ready-made home and family in the English countryside. He falls in with the plans of an unscrupulous neighbor who grew up with the Ashby twins and coaches Brat to assume the role of Patrick, returned from the dead to claim his inheritance. If only Brat didn't have a conscience, and if only his "twin" Simon Ashby wasn't so certain that Patrick is well and truly dead it might have gone as planned. Of course, it doesn't. I enjoyed the characters Tey describes so well and the picture of post-World War II English country life as much as I did the mystery in this tightly crafted tale.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Marci Hoffman, Associate Director & International and Foreign Law Collections

A Man Called Ove is about a curmudgeon who doesn’t want to interact with anyone, especially his neighbors (sounds like me). After the death of wife, he decides to kill himself (and tries but doesn’t succeed). However, an accident with a U-Haul truck and a mailbox forever change his life and those around him. Plus, a stray cat as leading role in this book and is a great character. I love the cat. This book has also been made into a movie, see here.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, YA

Joe Cera, Legal Research Librarian for Information Technology & Scholarly Communications

This is a classic example of 'the book was better.' Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is the first book in a trilogy. I typically loathe books that are just parts of a whole story that can't stand on their own. Somehow it feels like the publisher of the book just wants to sell me a whole story in three parts. That may be the case here too as I haven't read the second or third book in the series. However, I often wonder what happened to those strange kids so I'll probably read the second book before deciding if the third book is worth the effort.

The plot is your run of the mill grandfather gets killed by a monster, people think you're crazy, you go on a journey of self-discovery, it turns out you aren't crazy. As the title suggests, this story involves children with certain peculiarities. Aside from that, there is also a dash of time travel, some decent baddies, and the expected teenage angst. Time travel is always a difficult tool to pull off. Most authors rely purely on 'magic' and don't bother with the details. The method in this story is at least relatively original and some attention is paid to potential inconsistencies. The book is also peppered with actual vintage photographs that tie into the storytelling.

As a bonus, be sure to read the author's notes about finding and gathering the photographs and the impact those photos had on the story. It is possibly as interesting as the book even though the explanation is only a handful of pages long.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman

Marci Hoffman, Associate Director & International and Foreign Law Collections

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry is probably my favorite of the three by Fredrik Backman. I really liked the characters of the grandmother and Elsa, the 7-year old granddaughter who is more of a grown-up than the adults. The grandmother is an absolute hoot and the relationship between Elsa and her grandmother is very touching and unconventional. When the grandmother dies, she leaves Elsa with a batch of letters to deliver to people that her grandmother had wronged during her life. These letters take the reader into other worlds, wonderful stories, and strange characters in the Land-of-Almost-Awake and the Kingdom of Miamas. Britt-Marie and her husband are part of this story as well, so that can be a bit confusing if you read the books out of order.

Dessert First by Dean Gloster YA

Edna Lewis, Reference Librarian

Our good friend and my husband’s former law partner Dean Gloster recently published this YA novel, and even if he wasn’t our bestie I’d still give this book 2 thumbs up. Set in Berkeley with many places (and perhaps people types) you’ll recognize, Dessert First is the story of 16 year old Cat whose 12 year old brother Beep has just had his second leukemia relapse (FYI the Beep character is named after my husband’s youngest brother). This book describes how one family and in particular one teenage girl behave when horrible things are happening to your family.

Cat is a great character because she’s not noble and often she’s not very nice – in other words she’s a real teenager. How she deals with her parents, her best friend/sorta boyfriend, her older sister, the mean girls at school, and her beloved Beep - whether blogging, on Facebook or at school - rings true in the way the best YA fiction does. I’m a tough nut, and I sobbed through much of this book so have the tissues ready. Despite that, there are also many laugh out loud moments.

I bought this book for my teenage daughter for Christmas, and I suggest you do so for any teenager you know. And include a package of Sniffs (read the book, you’ll get the reference).

The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin

Chris Tarr, Head of Cataloging

I’ve never cared much for science fiction, so when, in the wake of the election, my book group decided to read Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, published in 1974, I went along out of fellow-feeling but with not much enthusiasm. It’s really good, though. It’s the story of two societies on a planet and its moon. One is propertarian – they use money – and one is properly communist – they have no money and no belongings and really no private space. And it’s the story of a physicist who leaves one to travel to the other. Ursula Le Guin is the daughter of Berkeley anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, and you have to think that shows in the careful and attentive way she’s imagined these two societies. They feel real and not flat. Even more interesting, though, is the way she explores these them – neither one is perfect, and each, in some way, stunts its citizens. I don’t think it actually helped us deal with the wake of the election, but it was worth reading.

Flavor Flours by Alice Medrich

Louise Francis, UC Hastings School of Law (formerly Berkeley Law)

Just when I was despairing of ever buying a food porn baking book again because a health diagnosis forced me to stop eating wheat, Flavor Flours by Alice Medrich was recommended to me James Beard Foundation Book Award Winner). The size of a standard cookbook, the layout is more coffee table book – gorgeous full-page photos of most recipes. The text introducing the recipes and each section makes readers feel like they are in a baking class at a classic cooking school or American’s Test Kitchen. Techniques and ingredients are described in loving detail and with precision.

The book is a radical departure from other gluten-free (GF) baking treatises not only because of it’s high production values but also because it does not rely on creating mixes that are then used to make GF versions of standard recipes. Instead, it is divided into eight sections, with the first seven focused on one type of GF flour and the last on nut and coconut flours. While some recipes combine two types of flours, gone is the frustrating work of combining four or five flours into a flour mix (which always runs low when the specialty food stores are closed and the baker is low on one component). That said, this book is not for the novice GF baker – to be able to bake regularly from it one still needs a pantry full of GF flours – Rice, Oat, Corn, Buckwheat, Sorghum and nut fours. What made my heart sing when I read the Table of Contents is that it has an entire chapter on Chestnut Flour (a secret weapon for chocolate desserts I discovered by accident at Andronico’s) and another on Teff flour, a flour used in Ethiopian bread (which I buy at Berkeley Bowl).

I have finally found recipes that produce fine baked goods that do not seem poor cousins of the original. Cousins still, but not poor cousins. Her “Butter Biscuits” rely on heavy cream and yogurt instead of butter, but bake up crispy on the bottom and have a wonderful soft crumb inside, yet they stay together far better than any of my attempts at substituting one of my GF baking mixes for classic butter biscuits. Her pie crusts have wonderful flavor, although they rely on cream cheese which I cannot eat regularly, so I remain in search of a perfect GF pate brisee. Her cake technique is not rocket science but produces delicious results in a wide variety of flavors. And because this is by Alice Medrich – who started the dessert shop Cocolat – there are many chocolate-based recipes and she includes many of her wonderful tips on working with chocolate (which I learned by buying one of her earlier expensive chocolate cookbooks – so Flavor Flours is a twofer).

If you have a baker in your life who loves to learn new things, is gluten-free, or is experimenting with gluten-free, this cookbook makes a lovely gift (add a kitchen scale if the baker doesn’t have one). It will be in use often during the holidays at our house – for crepes when my sons come home from college, for beignets on Christmas morning, for savory crackers for our cheese plates, and for a Chestnut Buche de Noel for our annual holiday open house (the photo of which is frame-worthy). Like the biscuits, I doubt the end results will look as perfect as they do in the photos, but I am confident they will look fine and taste delicious.

An Expert In Murder by Nicola Upson (2009) Audiobook

Marlene Harman, Reference Librarian

England, 1934. Novelist Josephine Tey is on the train from Scotland to London to see Richard of Bordeaux, the play she has written under the pseudonym Gordon Daviot. It's not her first trip to see her successful, long running play, but this trip soon becomes anything but routine. Tey's young traveling companion is murdered with a hat pin, and the bodies keep coming. This is the first of Nicola Upson’s "Josephine Tey Mysteries". Fact and fiction are liberally intertwined. Richard of Bordeaux was probably the most successful play actually written by Elizabeth MacKintosh as Gordon Daviot. His performance in it as Richard III helped launch John Gielgud's acting career. He appears as John Terry, one of several fictionalized actors in the novel. Davina Porter’s narration enhances Nicola Upson’s mystery, immersing the listener in the highly competitive world of the 1930s English theater, where the off stage drama more than rivals that performed on stage.

A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin

Robert C. Berring, Jr., Walter Perry Johnson Professor of Law

This book is a powerful collection of the stories of Lucia Berlin. She was much admired in the critical community but never broke through to a wide audience. Now that she is dead she gets some attention. She writes in a wonderful voice in a largely autobiographical series of stories set in the Bay Area, Texas and Mexico. Though one comes to admire her spirit, she makes bad decisions and lives with the consequences. The first story should be avoided by dental phobes but the rest is wonderful. She would be much more fun to know than Franzen’s Pip from Purity.